When Horror Works Best

At Diversicon in late July/early August, I picked up a copy of The Sound of Dead Hands Clapping, a chapbook of six horror stories by Mark Rich, published by Gothic Press.  I was attracted to the book by Mark’s cover art, which featured a forlorn (at least it seemed forlorn to me) and maimed creature (well, maybe it’s just a bit asymmetrical), looking out over a sea (or a lettuce patch?) from which weird, beseeching hands reach.  Toward something, someone. Mark’s art manages to be, at the same time, both creepy and adorable.

I’m not a huge fan of horror in general, but I am a fan of the quiet, psychological, and enigmatic.

These tales are like that.  In “House Dogs,” for instance, our protagonist, Michael Elders, is attended by a bunch of dogs.  They live in his house, and provide certain household services, in exchange for a significant price, one Michael Elders doesn’t believe he can pay.  They are not pets in any sense we would recognize, although Michael would like to have a pet–a dog–but a normal one, not these imperious creatures.  Unfortunately, at the local pet store, dogs have been “out of stock” for some time.  The clerk at the store (a woman he’s attracted t0) offers him some strange, hairless cats instead.

Much has happened before the story opens, events occurring and choices made, the nature of which we cannot know.    And because the author doesn’t give me the backstory, I speculate.

I recognize Michael Elders’ shame.  Somehow, in his mind, these dogs are his fault.  He has contradictory feelings toward them.  He dislikes and fears them, he wishes they would go away, and he is appalled by the price they ask of him.  Yet, he appreciates the comfortable home they make for him; he enjoys the meals they cook for him, and warms himself by the fire they lay for him.  He suspects certain acquaintances of his are harboring dogs as well, but the subject is too shameful for him ever to bring up.

The dogs are sort of like an addiction.  But not really.  They’re sort of like a deal with the devil.  But not really.  Michael Elders is clearly not alone in the choice (sin) that led to his entrapment by the House Dogs.  It is also clear that his entrapment somehow snuck up on him, reminding me of credit card debt more than anything else I can think of.

But I don’t want to know exactly what is going on here.  This story appeals to me precisely because I can’t figure it out.  Instead, it reminds me of something, something that makes all too much sense, something smarter and wilier than I am, something that will catch up to me one day, no matter how much I try to forget it.

And that, for me, is when horror works best.

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